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Princeton University students need to work harder for the A's.

The university released results Monday of the first year under a new grading policy, designed to tackle the issue of grade inflation. In the last academic year, A's (including plus and minus grades) accounted for 40.9 percent of all grades awarded. That may not be consistent with a bell curve, but the figure is down from 46.0 percent the previous year, and 47.9 percent the year before that.

Princeton's goal is to have A's account for less than 35 percent of the grades awarded. Nancy Malkiel, dean of the college at Princeton, said that based on progress during the first year, she thought the university would have no difficulty achieving that goal.

The data indicate that some fields have come quite close to the target while others lag. The only category that stayed the same the year the new policy took effect (natural sciences) was already near the target.

Percentage of Undergraduate A's at Princeton, by Disciplinary Category

Discipline 2004-5 2003-4
Humanities 45.5% 56.2%
Social sciences 38.4% 42.5%
Natural sciences 36.4% 36.4%
Engineering 43.2% 48.0%

The university did not impose quotas, but asked each department to review grading policies and to discuss ways to bring grades down to the desired level. Departments in turn discussed expectations for different types of courses, and devised approaches to use. For independent study and thesis grades, the Princeton guidelines expect higher grades than for regular undergraduate courses, and that was the case last year.

Malkiel said that she wasn't entirely certain about the differences among disciplines, but that, generally, it was easier for professors to bring grades down when they evaluate student work with exams and problem sets than with essays. She said that by sharing ideas among departments, however, she is confident that all disciplines can meet the targets.

Universities should take grade inflation seriously, she said, as a way to help their students.

"The issue here is how we do justice to our students in our capacity as educators, and we have a responsibility to show them the difference between their very best work and their good work, and if we are giving them the same grades for the very best work and for their good work, they won’t know the difference and we won’t stretch them as far as they are capable as stretching,” she said.

Despite the additional pressure on students who want A's, she said, professors have not reported any increase in students complaining about or appealing the grades.

In discussions about grade inflation nationally, junior faculty members have complained that it is hard for them to be rigorous graders for fear of getting low student evaluations. Malkiel said that she understood the concern, and that Princeton's approach -- by focusing attention on the issue -- would help. "What this institution is saying loud and clear is that all of us together are expected to be responsible. So if you have a culture where the senior faculty are behaving that way, it will make it easier for the junior faculty to behave that way.”

Melisa Gao, a senior at Princeton and editor in chief of The Daily Princetonian, said that student reactions to the tougher grading policy have varied, depending on what people study. Gao is a chemistry major and she said that the new policy isn't seen as a change in her department.

Professors have drawn attention to the new policy at the beginning of courses, and Gao said that some students say that they are more stressed about earning A's, but that there has not been any widespread criticism of the shift.

Many companies are recruiting on campus now, and Gao said that students have wondered if they would be hurt by their lower grades. Princeton officials have said that they are telling employers and graduate schools about the policy change, so students would not be punished by it.

But, Gao added, "at the end of the day, you have a number on a transcript."

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